Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Religious Athlete

It's impossible to watch ESPN, or an NBA game, or read the sports section these days without hearing or seeing a reference to Jeremy Lin.

From the awful ("Linevitable"?) puns in the New York Post to breathless "Top Ten Lin Moments" on SportsCenter (after one week as a starter? seriously?) he has been everywhere. And not without reason - his is a "feel good" story if ever there was one, although one suspects if he was plying his trade in Houston or San Francisco, his two former NBA teams, he wouldn't be getting nearly the press that comes with playing in Madison Square Garden.

Lin shooting over a Laker in a recent game.

By far the most interesting analysis regarding Lin's instant fame, however, hasn't been from ESPN or even the New York Times sports section. It's been from David Brooks, the Times' columnist, who analyzed Lin's faith and, as Brooks sees it, the inevitable conflict between devoutly religious athletes and athletic success. 

Brooks believes that success in the sports world and living a religious life are antithetical. Far be it from me to summarize Brooks' position -- he is perhaps the political and social pundit whose writing and intellect I admire most -- so let's just let him say it:

Ascent in the sports universe is a straight shot. You set your goal, and you climb toward greatness. But ascent in the religious universe often proceeds by a series of inversions: You have to be willing to lose yourself in order to find yourself; to gain everything you have to be willing to give up everything; the last shall be first; it's not about you . . . Sports history is littered with odd quotations from people who try to reconcile their love of sport with their religious creed -- and fail.

As much as I agree with Brooks regarding many star athletes, I disagree just as strongly with regard to sport in general, and amateur sports in particular. Devotion to a craft or simply a belief in one's natural talent may result in self-centeredness at the pinnacle of a sport, particularly individual sports, which may be difficult to reconcile with subservience or submission to a great power or the greater good. But Brooks paints with too broad a brush. While a belief in oneself or the need to prove oneself may be necessary to the inner drive that is required to succeed at the very highest level, team sports teach us something very different.

The concept of team, and with it that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, is the very essence of sport. It also permeates every aspect of our daily lives, on the field and off. Being a "team player" or "taking one for the team" are concepts that everyone in our culture understands and most value. Sports at any level can and do teach us that practice, hard work, and perseverance can help make even that teammate who is not naturally gifted or athletically talented a valued member. Even if it's just by working hard in practice, or providing a warm body to scrimmage against, or supporting teammates during a game.

These values that anyone can learn by participating in a team sport - loyalty, honesty, hard work, self-sacrifice - are exactly the same as those demanded by our religious ethos, or even more generally, by democracies. I don't see a conflict between succeeding as a team member and religion or society. In fact, I believe that what sports teach us about teamwork is another reason why our society values sport, and why it can and does make us better members of that collective effort.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

No One Wants to See It

You've probably heard by now about Paul Withee, the high school football coach in Maine (51 years old, by the way), who had the good sense to decide to send his girlfriend a “candid photo” of himself in all his glory, and nothing else.

Somehow (and don’t expect me to explain) the coach accidentally posted the picture on his Facebook profile instead of posting it in a private section or emailing it to his girlfriend. And, as luck would have it, while it was only up 30 minutes, it was seen by several folks, including a parent of one of his players.

Not surprisingly, the coach is now an ex-coach and, while the school district has first opened and then closed (after the coach's resignation) an investigation, it can't be too happy about what transpired and what the incident says about the folks that it employs to teach and mold its students.

Most of the blogging and other commentary about the incident have focused on the perils of intermixing work, personal relationships, social media, and technological ignorance or ineptitude. I initially thought about doing the same, focusing on concerns about privacy settings and information mining that have been heightened lately regarding both Facebook and Google.

Then I had a thought.

What if Mr. Withee had just had the good sense to not take the picture in the first place?

Sure, we can talk about the dangers of social media use, whether it's a good idea or not to "friend" students or athletes if you're a teacher or coach, whether privacy settings and their constant changes on social media sites and search engines make it difficult, dangerous, and intrusive to use the internet. But the bottom line here is, if Withee hadn't decided that his girlfriend would want to see the photo, and if he hadn't had the ability to take it and then try to send it to her, then no one would be none the wiser.

In the good old days, Withee wouldn't have had the ability (or inability as the case may be) to disgrace himself and convert himself from a successful coach to an unemployed one in the blink of a digital camera. At best, he could have tried to take a Polaroid of himself and slip it to his gal, or stick it in the mail. Eventually, he would have probably been done in by an inappropriate comment or suggestion, but the entire world would have never known.

Idiots are, and always have been, idiots. It's just that technology makes it easier for everyone to know exactly who they are. Parents, students, employers, the government. Everyone with a cell phone has a digital camera and every buffoon with an email account or a Facebook page has the ability to publish to the world anything they want.

Even if nobody else wants to see it.

Would you want a nude photo of this man on your Facebook page?

Withee was duly "embarrassed", "ashamed", and "humiliated" by the incident and said that he had never done anything like that before. While there is plenty of reason to not believe that, simply put, once was one time too many.

It's real simple, guys. As much as you like to think they do, no one, and I mean no one, needs to see a photo of you and/or "it." No matter what your wife, girlfriend, or significant other says, they don't need to see it, and aren't as impressed as they let on. No matter how tempted you are, no matter what a good idea you think it is, don't take that picture.

The best explanation is not having to explain.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Pouring It On

The United States women's national soccer team qualified for the Olympics this past week at the CONCACAF tournament held in Vancouver, beating Canada 4-0 in the Final. The women also avenged their loss to Mexico in World Cup qualifying a year ago, beating them 4-0 in the group stage.

All told, the U.S. outscored their opponents 38-0 in the five game, ten day tournament. Those gaudy statistics were aided by a 14-0 thrashing of the Dominican Republic in the first game of group play and a 13-0 stomping of Guatemala in the second. 

Those two wins had some people grumbling that the Americans' coach, Pia Sundhage, had lost her sense of sportsmanship. Adding fuel to the fire was the fact that substitute Amy Rodriguez scored five second half goals against the Dominicans and Sydney Leroux the same number (also in the second half as a substitute) against Guatemala.

Sydney Leroux, celebrating after a goal
against North Korea in the U-20 World Cup.

It's easy for someone who isn't a coach in general, or the coach of a national team in particular, to make a judgment call about what is or isn't sporting. But, having been in Sundhage's position a few times myself, I am convinced that there are no simple answers to the question of when, or whether, to call off the dogs.

In my third season as a head coach my high school team beat a school, which happened to be our biggest rival in all sports, 13-0. We didn't start the game intending to inflict that type of humiliation, but things got out of control on the pitch and before I knew it, it was too late to try to save the dignity of the opposing team. I apologized after the match to the opposing coach, who I like very much. He graciously deflected my genuine remorse with a simple "it's our job to stop you and we couldn't" but if anything that just made me feel worse.

After that, my team never scored more than nine goals in a game against any team, no matter how badly out-matched they were. As we strengthened our schedule those breathers got fewer and farther between, but there were always a few matches each year where it was more work to not embarrass the other team than it was to win. I would devise various games within a game to try to keep the score down - after six or seven goals we could only shoot outside the 18, or shoot after five consecutive passes, score on a header, or only a player who had not scored that season, or had never scored, could shoot.

And the players played by the rules or else. I remember at least one game when one of our stars (and one of the fiercest competitors that I ever coached) shot and scored during a blow-out when the rule in effect did not allow it. The goal made the score 9-0 and I immediately yanked her out of the match. She came to the touch-line with a "what did I do wrong?" look on her face, but she knew. And every other player on our team knew too.

My job of trying to keep the score down, though, was easier than Sundhage's. Most importantly, I had the ability to freely substitute players and did so. Sundhage, on the other hand, was limited to three substitutions per match in the tournament. And, let's face it, her bench is a wee bit more talented than mine was.

Another factor that was to my advantage was that when the score got to nine, we would simply pass the ball around. No shooting, no scoring. It was always a concern that it would look like we were toying with the other team. And, to some extent, we were. But we were playing on a field in West Virginia with 50 or so people in the stands most times. The memories of those who played or watched have faded with regard to how the score was reached, but the score itself has not.

To play "keep away" in front of 20,000 fans and television audience, however, is a very different proposition. Was it more humiliating for the Dominicans and Guatemalans to lose by two touchdowns (one with a missed extra point) or to lose 9-0 and have to chase the U.S. players for the last 20 minutes of the match, everyone knowing that they were not up to the task? Would that have been a more sporting way for the U.S. to play rather than continuing to try to score?

I'm not sure I know the answer, or that there is one. But I do know that anyone who says they are absolutely sure what the answer is has, very likely, never had to make that decision themselves.